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10 February 2010 @ 10:34 am
We Love Booksellers! Meet Cathy Anderson of The Briar Patch, Bangor, Maine  
Although it’s celebrating a rebirth now, downtown Bangor, Maine, has not been an easy place to run a small business. Competition from shopping malls and on-line retailers has taken its toll in Bangor as everywhere—and a Maine winter does not always lend itself to a casual shopping stroll down Main Street. 

We won’t even talk about the challenges of running an independent bookstore these days. 

Despite all that, the children’s bookstore The Briar Patch has graced its central Bangor location for 22 years, and owner Cathy Anderson has been weathering the ups and downs of retailing for 14 years. (She's pictured here with her collection of books by Maine authors.) Her store offers everything from baby’s first picture book to young adult novels, as well as a section of toys and games and a few baby clothes that were too cute to resist. (They have Gund stuffed animals in the pockets.) She even has a few adult books--some on parenting and teaching, "but also books I have read and enjoyed and am excited to recommend."

In addition to running her bookstore with the assistance of Annie Kuhn, Cathy is on the organizing committee for the annual Bangor Book Festival, and serves on the school board in nearby Dedham. 

Thanks for agreeing to talk about your experience as a bookseller, Cathy! Can you tell us a little bit about how you got into bookselling, and about your store?

I think on some level, I always wanted to own my own business and most preferably a bookstore, but realistically never thought it would be possible. I had a career as a child life specialist at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, and had been feeling frustrated and burned out by that for a couple of years. Eight years previous, a friend I worked with there and I had talked about opening a store for children, and for numerous reasons she ended up doing this on her own. When she decided to go back to school in education, she called me and gave me first refusal in buying The Briar Patch. 

 I didn't have to think very hard about it, and I had just inherited a small amount of money from an uncle that I felt I could invest in a retirement account so I didn't have to worry about making enough money to save for that. This, and not having any debts like a mortgage, have allowed me to grow the business and weather the threats of competition from chains and the internet, and the slow economy. 

So I entered into this business with lots of background in what kids need at different ages and stages, and about children's literature and the magic of reading and books, but knowing very little about running a business. I still feel like I could learn a lot more about the latter, but have managed okay.

A table of seasonal books (in this case, Valentine's Day) greets customers near the cash register. 

The Briar Patch has always been about good books, and other things that inspire creative play and thinking. I try to select things that appeal to multiple intelligences and a child's inner resources. So I stay away from electronic toys (especially books and toys that "talk") and TV tie-ins — I don't have anything that was a TV show or movie before it was a book, or that is the "movie edition." I also think marketing to children is destructive, so you won't find anything in here that has big advertising dollars behind it.

Other influences on my buying include the environment and buying local, made in U.S. I can't get completely away from items made in foreign countries, but I do try to insure that labor is not exploited. Most books are also printed in China. Safety is also a buying consideration. I have things in the store for all ages, including adults, though the focus is mostly on the birth to 15 years group.

How do you view your role as an independent bookseller? What do you find most rewarding about your job? What is most challenging?

I feel my role as an independent business owner is to provide a unique array of quality merchandise to my community. I try to provide what my customers want without compromising my own ideals and ideas about what is "good." As a local independent business my profits also stay local, and I support schools and other non-profits with generous discounts. As a bookseller, I feel my role is crucial in keeping a wide variety of reading choices available to the public. Chain stores generally carry only what is selling and heavily promoted by publishers. They don't take many chances on less well-known titles. Every independent store is unique because the people who work there read all kinds of things and can carry and sell things you won't find in the bigger stores.

A display of toys and games just inside the door helps draw young
shoppers into the bookstore.

One of the most rewarding things is when people like what I recommend and have chosen to carry, and come back for more!

 Money matters to us, too, of course, so it is discouraging when I put a lot of time into choosing what to carry, and the numbers of people who buy here isn't enough to support that. The most challenging thing is keeping up! There are almost too many new books (did I say that?) and it gets harder and harder to keep a good sense of what's out there. It's also very challenging to keep up with all the different terms that publishers offer, and I strongly dislike the move to on-line catalogues!

How can readers and authors work with and support independent booksellers?

Readers and authors can support independent bookstores with their purchasing dollars, plain and simple. We won't be here if you don't buy here. Authors, specifically, can support us with links to their websites. If you want us to sell your book, send customers, like your friends and relatives, here. Don't use the brand name of Borders or Amazon to substitute for the word "bookstore."

Downtown Bangor is quiet on a winter afternoon, but The Briar Patch is helped by its location between a bakery and a lunch spot. 

Can you tell us about a few of your recent favorite YA or MG fantasy books?

I haven't read anything especially new in fantasy lately. I do like Jessica Day George's Dragon Slippers series, and of course, The Unnameables! Perennial favorite authors include Patricia Wrede, Tamora Pierce, Bruce Coville, and Emily Rodda. 

 What excites you about YA and MG fantasy?
I read the Narnia series in 3rd grade, and still love it. I never saw it as a separate genre from all the horse and animal and mystery and historical fiction books I also read. The magic was in opening a different world and it didn't matter if it was really "possible" or not. I love good writing no matter what the genre. 

As a bookseller, it does seem like fantasy, especially since Harry Potter, is often what turns pleasure non-readers into readers. I think kids also appreciate, though often sub-consciously, the good vs. evil struggles and other metaphors that fantasy presents more clearly than other genres.

Thanks for talking with The Enchanted Inkpot, Cathy! (And thanks plugging THE UNNAMEABLES. *blush*)

Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on February 10th, 2010 08:24 pm (UTC)
What a great interview - and the pictures make me want to fly up to Maine and visit (ironically, that would also help me escape the snow). Thanks!
kikihamiltonkikihamilton on February 11th, 2010 10:21 pm (UTC)
The Briar Patch looks like a wonderful bookstore and Cathy sounds delightful. If I'm ever in Maine, I'll be stopping by! Thanks Ellen!
nandinibnandinib on February 13th, 2010 03:17 am (UTC)
So interesting to read your conversation with Cathy about the joys and challenges of running an independent book store. The Briar Patch looks and sounds marvelous. If I ever end up in Bangor (this summer, maybe) I'll definitely visit. Great pictures too!